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The Only ‘Superstar Shake-up’ Moves That Have Mattered

Looking to the past to gauge the latest ‘Raw’ and ‘SmackDown’ swap meet

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By March 2002, WWE had positioned itself as the sole seat of power in professional wrestling. It had acquired Ted Turner’s rival World Championship Wrestling one year earlier, and was months away from acquiring all assets pertaining to Paul Heyman’s once-insurgent but now bankrupt Extreme Championship Wrestling. (Heyman and several ECW veterans had already signed with WWE.) The company’s roster was spilling over with marketable names, but also bearing the weight of their contracts. The only way to keep all that talent in-house without bleeding into the red was by designating its flagship prime-time shows—Raw and SmackDown—as distinct fiefdoms. And so, that March 25, as the locker room looked on in mock suspense, chairman Vince McMahon helmed the promotion, kicking off what has since been a near-annual tradition of refreshing the company’s marquee TV brands via its equivalent of a major-sport’s midseason trade deadline.

Fifteen years later the draft was rechristened as “Superstar Shake-up” and has periodically experimented with different formats, from GMs trading warhorses as actual GMs might to a seemingly arbitrary act-of-God format. And in an age where fans are (as Daniel Bryan recently and accurately surmised) rather fickle, the Shake-up has evolved into one of WWE’s most surefire crowd-pleasers.

During this week’s Raw Shake-up kickoff, we watched as newly anointed fan favorite The Miz sneak-attacked his WrestleMania foe Shane McMahon, marking his return to Monday night; NXT’s War Raiders (formerly Ring of Honor’s War Machine) debuted with new names—Ivar and Erik, the Viking Experience—to the dismay of literally everyone; crosscontinental superstar-in-waiting Andrade got over on Intercontinental Champ Finn Bálor; promo-crashing Southern belle Lacey Evans not only declared her Raw-dom but earned a shot at one of Becky Lynch’s two belts; and AJ Styles came back to the red team for the first time in nearly three years, looking more clean-shaven but no less luxuriously maned.

Far from playing second fiddle, SmackDown followed up by ushering out Big Dog Roman Reigns to supplant Styles as top draw, in addition to aforementioned IC Champ Bálor; former NXT women’s champion and seafaring enthusiast Kairi Sane (now part of an ad hoc team up with ex-SmackDown women’s champion Asuka, flanked by Paige as manager/mouthpiece); healthy but adrift Ember Moon; Bayley, finally untethered from perennial frenemy Sasha Banks; and several other familiars. And while not as headline-grabbing, Liv Morgan and Chad Gable were also resituated, marking the end of their partnerships with the Riott Squad and Bobby Roode, respectively. (A full list of relocated superstars is available here.) The overall effect is one of cleaned slates and reshuffled decks (all the better for Kairi to commence swabbing), the closest WWE comes to an offseason free-agent frenzy.

Will any of these personnel ploys pan out beyond their one-night ratings bump and attendant buzz? Odds are most of them won’t drastically alter either brand’s landscape, let alone the bigger picture. But some of them will. And the only honest way to judge is by revisiting recent Shake-ups past and extracting a handful of moves that bore out major consequence. (We kept it to the past decade for maximum instructiveness.) So before you assume EC3 isn’t destined for greater things or Reigns’s slot on SmackDown is some kind of demotion, consider how these five wrestlers’ fortunes—and thus the creative direction of their respective destinations—were fatefully impacted by a change of broadcast scenery. Will any of this year’s shaken reach new heights? Let’s revisit some of the most successful moves of shake-ups past.

AJ Styles, Drafted to SmackDown on July 19, 2016

WWE’s contemporary era was formally germinated three summers ago, when SmackDown moved from Thursday to Tuesday nights and—like its “flagship” counterpart Raw—was broadcast live on USA. Part and parcel, the company solidified the notion that each brand was mutually exclusive from the other, following close to three years of casual crossover. That year’s draft—presided over by Raw figureheads Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley, and then SmackDown suits Shane McMahon and pre-comeback Daniel Bryan—solidified Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns as Monday’s mightiest for the foreseeable future (in Reigns’s case, till a few days ago) and, more notably, situated relative WWE newbie AJ Styles on Tuesdays. Styles would skyrocket up the ranks of SmackDown, redesignating it as “The House That AJ Styles Built.” He backed that up with two long tenures as WWE champion and (along with New Day and a handful of other rock stars) revitalizing what was once Raw’s runner-up in viewer esteem. His work done, he has come full circle to Raw, ready to presumably play out his ultimate contract renewal with a run for Rollins’s (or whoever’s) Universal title.

Sheamus, Drafted to SmackDown on April 25, 2011

The brogue-kicking bruiser from Cabra, Dublin, didn’t exactly fly under the radar during his stretch on Raw starting in fall 2009. By that winter, he’d already become WWE Champion (at John Cena’s expense, no less) and less than a year later emerged from the King of the Ring tournament (bring it back!) with crown in hand. But things really ratcheted up for the raging redhead upon finding his groove on Friday nights (SmackDown moved around the schedule a fair amount and will return to Fridays again on Fox in October). In short order, he was last man standing at the 2012 Royal Rumble; beat then–world heavyweight champion Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania in record time, marking a momentous turning point in Bryan’s tilt toward uber-eccentric viral phenomenon; and feuded with the Shield for sizable chunk of 2013. For those keeping score, he was trusted with not merely carrying gold and entering his name into the pantheon of Rumble survivors, but essentially helping push WWE’s biggest success stories of the aughts—Bryan and the Shield—to a place where anything was possible. All hail King Sheamus!

The Bella Twins, Drafted to Raw, April 13, 2009

One slight caveat to this is that Nikki and Brie’s big splash on Raw was briefly put on ice when they were traded back to their original home on ECW that June. However, they were traded back to Raw in October, so we’ll proceed as if their post-draft Monday-night push was effectively uninterrupted. The twin magicians from Arizona were side notes in the supplemental portion of 2009’s draft but wound up casting the die for what would eventually materialize as a full-fledged women’s revolution. There were no tag belts for the ladies back then, but the siblings squeezed every last ounce of opportunism out of their inborn gimmick, coming together as a duo as readily as they became ripped at the seams amid simmering tension. (Their abbreviated 2014 rivalry remains one of recent WWE’s most conspicuous open ends.) But they also got really good at wrestling, especially two-time Divas champion Nikki (no offense Brie), who was a sometimes-overlooked cornerstone of the women’s uprising that began mid-decade. You could argue that their E! reality show Total Divas, which premiered in 2013, made them stars, or accept the accurate assessment that they were stars who made the series a hit. (Its popular spinoff, Total Bellas, is further testament.) For now, both Nikki and Brie have retired from in-ring competition, but they activated a movement far greater than their humble ’09 origins had foreshadowed.

Brock Lesnar, Drafted to Raw July 19, 2016

Once the Beast set about reconquering WWE in 2012, he pretty much planted his flag on Raw and went hunting. Still, the decision to cement Lesnar on Raw that summer would reverberate with unforeseen force. The McMahons’ must-see attraction held the Universal Championship hostage—as well as any story lines surrounding it—for the majority of 2017 (Lesnar beat Goldberg for the title that Mania), ’18, and ’19 (when Lesnar finally succumbed to Seth Rollins at Mania 35). This wasn’t entirely unplanned, but the real-life backlash was pronounced, as SmackDown felt more and more like a meritocratic and mercifully concise alternative (though Raw did at last start limiting itself to a hard three hours and out). Lesnar wasn’t so much synonymous with Raw since the ’16 draft as he was the personification of its complacency. Which, in its own perverse way, made this April’s marathon of smiles at MetLife more profoundly rewarding. WWE wins again!

Alexa Bliss, Drafted to Raw April 10, 2017

I know what you’re thinking. Not Charlotte being drafted to Raw the year before? Or back to SmackDown on this very same spring ’17 evening? Well, that’s kind of the point. Charlotte is in her own hybrid category of malleable megawatt stardom. But subtly, Bliss’s move from Tuesdays—where she quickly earned a championship and surpassed her diminutive stature in Disney-villain snarl—helped stabilize the women’s ranks on both shows. Her role as a snide and self-serving egotist was clear and unmuddied, making her a perfect foil for Sasha Banks and Bayley and a logical choice to monopolize the Raw women’s belt for half of 2017. Two more title runs, as well as victory in the second-ever all-female Money in the Bank ladder match, ensued. So did injuries and a hit-or-miss side gig hosting her own eponymous in-program talk show, both of which makes it easy to overlook the way Alexa helped give Monday’s women’s competition identity and continuity before Ronda Rousey or The Man rode into town. The instant she was chosen for Raw in April ’17 was, as it turns out for the fans so invested in equal opportunity, a genuine moment of bliss.

And If We Were to Project a Sixth Addition From This Year’s Shake-up ...

With or without his “good brothers” Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, Finn Bálor could be the face of Friday nights on Fox. Things never seesawed entirely back Bálor’s way after he was hastily awarded the Universal title in summer 2016 and had to abdicate it immediately thereafter due to injury. But at least now we know why he was hurried into the rarified air of two-time Intercontinental champion this year. He comes into SmackDown hot and has never looked more credible, and it’s a whole lot easier to envision him as the marquee man he was destined to be without He-Men like Brock Lesnar, Braun Strowman, and Bobby Lashley looming, nevermind Rollins, who scanned as a similarly skilled and statured A-lister but had relative youth and Mid-American relatability on his side. If Kofi Kingston’s Mania victory over ex-WWE champion Daniel Bryan formalizes SmackDown as the land of opportunity, Bálor—be it the demon incarnation or garden-variety sex-symbol version—is bound to seize the day.